Counting your vote

Slate has a complicated mathematical piece trying to explain to Americans why their vote really does count even though it seems pointless in among the tens of millions of votes that will have no effect at all on the race to the White House.  The end result seems to be you should vote in the hope that your state ends up being an important swing state that influences the First Past the Post election.  But your odds aren’t good:

Even if your vote helps swing Florida, Florida might not swing the election. But if the electoral vote is sufficiently close, many states could be in a position to affect the national outcome. You know that if 538 fewer Bush votes had been counted in Florida, Al Gore would be president. But did you know that only 1,231,944 more Bob Dole voters, carefully apportioned among Nevada, Kentucky, Arizona, Tennessee, New Mexico, Florida, New Hampshire, Delaware, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, would have given their man the election, despite Clinton’s lead of 8 million in the popular vote?

All of which is a timely reminder of what a simple and clean voting system we have here in New Zealand.  Nearly everyone’s party vote here counts in the exact same proportion to everyone else’s.  (The exceptions being parties that either don’t make the 5% threshold and don’t win an electorate seat, or do win an electorate seat but whose party vote tally is low enough puts their electorate seat/s in overhang.) Last election here in New Zealand only about 2 percent of votes had no impact on the end result (either from voting from small parties like Destiny New Zealand for from the Maori Party’s overhang).  In the United States this election that number will be closer to 40 percent.

16 thoughts on “Counting your vote

  1. However, many party votes are discarded in the NZ system. In my electorate I have a an Alliance candidate asking for the party vote. Any party votes for the Alliance at this election are highly likely to be discarded due to the Alliance having no chance of winning a seat nor reaching the 5% threshold.

    I personally would like to see a MMP/STV system where you have the same two votes, but you rank the candidates for one and rank the parties for the other. For the Party Vote, a voter who ranked Alliance 1 and Green 2 would have their discarded Alliance vote transferred to the Greens, and it would count. For the candidate vote the normal STV system would be calculated whereby low polling candidates’ votes are transferred until someone gets 50%.

    Another party vote example, some will vote Kiwi and Family this election, but their votes are highly likely to be wasted like the Alliance ones. IF they could rank, then their vote could be transferred to second (or subsequent) choices until it counted.

    While this makes our voting system a bit more complicated, STV ranking is used for DHB elections and some local councils, so we’re not unfamiliar with it.

    So I support electoral reform, but want it to be much wider than just a knee-jerk referendum on MMP.

    What do you think?

    Quentin http://greenhawkesbay.wordpress.com

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  2. The only voters that count in this US election are those in Colorado, Virginia and Ohio. i.e. if the election is close, and swings on one state, then it will (almost certainly) be one of those three.

    I’ve been following this US electoral cycle far more closely than is reasonable or sane for a non-US citizen. I’ve got a friend, a street theatre artist, who’s following it even more closely : she’s spending these last couple of weeks chasing the candidates. Her artistic project is to kiss Obama… she’s getting close, I think she’ll make it, if the Secret Service don’t arrest her first… So far, she’s kissed Michelle Obama, and exchanged a few words with Barack… Last night she went to see McCain, co-starring Arnie Schwartzenegger. Her adventures are here : http://caroline-amoros.blog.lemonde.fr/
    (text in French, but the pictures tell the story)

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  3. Does anyone know the justification for the 5% threshold? If we’re prepared to entertain Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party overhangs, why not an MP from Social Credit, and a couple from the Christian Democrats (who regularly got 4% in past elections)?

    It seems very unrepresentative to me and skews the election results.

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  4. “I personally would like to see a MMP/STV system where you have the same two votes, but you rank the candidates for one and rank the parties for the other. For the Party Vote, a voter who ranked Alliance 1 and Green 2 would have their discarded Alliance vote transferred to the Greens, and it would count. For the candidate vote the normal STV system would be calculated whereby low polling candidates’ votes are transferred until someone gets 50%.”

    Personally, I wouldn’t want it. I have spoken to Australians, and they not only find STV a nuisance, but after a certain point start ranking the parties in alphabetical order, so utilising NZ names, you might end up with

    1 – Greens
    2 – Alliance
    3 – Labour
    4 – ACT
    5 – Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis
    6 – Democrats for Social Credit
    ad infinitum

    You would end up with a low level of wasted votes after a certain number of years; certainly the first MMP election saw about 6 or 7 percent wasted votes (mostly due to the Christian Coalition), but the last one may have seen 1 or 2 percent wasted.

    “Does anyone know the justification for the 5% threshold? If we’re prepared to entertain Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party overhangs, why not an MP from Social Credit, and a couple from the Christian Democrats (who regularly got 4% in past elections)?

    It seems very unrepresentative to me and skews the election results.”

    The idea comes from Germany and was essentially to stop another Hitler from coming up. The argument is that had Hitler not gained a few seats in the Reichstag that he would not have become dictator of Germany.

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  5. Cynical1 Says:
    November 1st, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    > Does anyone know the justification for the 5% threshold? If we’re prepared to entertain Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne and the Maori Party overhangs, why not an MP from Social Credit, and a couple from the Christian Democrats (who regularly got 4% in past elections)?

    The 5% threshold was justified by the Royal Commission on the grounds that they wanted to avoid having lots of small, extremist parties like Israel has, because they thought this would make the formation of stable governments more difficult. The one-seat rule to get around the threshold was based on the idea that a party that could win an electorate was likely to be less extreme and therefore easier to work with.

    When I mentioned this to a guy from Germany, he replied that it is illogical, because the NAZIs were a loony radical fringe party, and they got way more than 5% of the vote. I think the argument for introducing the threshold in germany after the war was that the high vote for Nazism was due to people wanting strong government, because they were fed up with the instability of the German political system created by having no threshold in the 1920s. I don’t know if any of that reasoning really makes sense, but it seems you can always win an argument by suggesting that what you are arguing against is somehow connected with Hitler.

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  6. The problem with transferable votes (or instant runoffs if you prefer) is that they have a tendancy to do crazy things. For instance, ranking your second favourite first and your real favourite second can be required to cause your real favourite to win an electorate contest. It’s also impossible to rank candidates equal, and it’s not very evaluative- that is, you can’t say when you think two candidates are very “close together” in quality, and when another two candidates are very “far apart”.

    There’s also no negative votes. There’s no difference between saying “I don’t know enough about X to risk voting for them” and “I really wish I could get rid of Kerry Prendergast” :P

    As for transferrable party votes- that would be an awesome way to incubate smaller parties like RAM and the Alliance, and would fix the problem of potentially adding seats to parties you don’t support by voting for a party that doesn’t get in. (for instance, a vote for Destiny Party might have bumped the Greens up an extra seat, or a vote for Alliance could bump National up a seat.)

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  7. Ari Says:
    November 2nd, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    > The problem with transferable votes (or instant runoffs if you prefer) is that they have a tendancy to do crazy things. For instance, ranking your second favourite first and your real favourite second can be required to cause your real favourite to win an electorate contest.

    I can’t see, mathematically, how that could happen. I think you may be imagining it.

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  8. My problem with the system is that we don’t count overhands properly!

    Jimmy A gets 0.01% of the party vote, but keeps his constituency seat and becomes a cabinet minister again. This seat should be an overhang seat as he didn’t poll enough party vote to earn a proportional seat. Same Goes for Petey Dunne. That’s two overhang seats! Now we can have the Maoris with seven seats and 2% party vote, creating five overhang seats (2.4 seats so, using Swedish rounding = 2 seats). This gives a total of 127 seats, seven of which are ‘overhang’. Using this, and a true approach to proportionality, a party that gets 50% of the party vote should be entitled to 64 seats (62.5%, rounding gives 0.0-0.4 =0 and 0.5-0.9 =1 – each having 5 decimals so making it equal opportunity).

    By adopting an “overhang doesn’t count towards proportionate percentage, we create a situation of last past the post can win! Not the intent of proportionate representation I am sure.

    NOTE Tactical voting could see the Maori Party with 7 seats and 0% of the Party Vote – a really interesting challenge to an unwritten constitution!

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  9. Disturbing to hear Tariana on national radio. Racist apartheid is alive and well in New Zealand.

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  10. Strings Says:
    November 3rd, 2008 at 9:19 am

    > By adopting an “overhang doesn’t count towards proportionate percentage, we create a situation of last past the post can win! Not the intent of proportionate representation I am sure.

    true. I’ve puzzled over how we can solve that problem, and it’s pretty intractable. There doesn’t seem to be a way of dealing with it that doesn’t interfere with proportionality.

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  11. samiam

    Why would you be disturbed about the utterances of a party created to pander to one race of people?

    Nothing the apartheid party says disturbs me, I expect to hear racist and separatist talk from them.

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  12. john-ston Says (about MMP/STV): “Personally, I wouldn’t want it. I have spoken to Australians, and they not only find STV a nuisance, but after a certain point start ranking the parties in alphabetical order, so utilising NZ names, you might end up with …”

    Australia is a poor example. Yes, they use STV, but it’s flawed in several ways:
    (1) People are legally required to vote.
    (2) You have to rank all the candidates (this + (1) results in what is called the ‘donkey vote’ – just write 1,2,3,4 … in the boxes in order).
    (3) In the only exception to (2), they have this awful system where you write in just one preference, and the rest of the preferences are filled in according to a list selected by that party.
    (4) They don’t use a particularly sound way of counting (they use the Hare-Clark quota, for local bodies, we use Meek’s method which requires a computer to get the result, but is much fairer).
    They also allow campaigning on the day of the election, but that is unrelated to STV.

    I’d be in favour of an MMP/STV system – it very nearly eliminates the need for tactical voting.

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  13. I would have hoped that under MMP, we didn’t need the Maori seats any more, as Maori are much better placed to get a voice in parliament without requiring special rules. However, the 5% threshold is way too high for New Zealand.

    At least partly because of our legacy of FPP, the two major parties get 80+% of the vote, and much of that vote is simply unavailable to the smaller parties, whether it’s people wanting to vote for a winner (i.e. major coalition partner), or whether people vote National/Labour because they always have). Say that at least 2/3rd of the vote is locked to major parties (I suspect it is more than that), that raises the threshold for minor parties to effectively 15% or more, and it’s very hard to get and maintain that – the Greens are the only minor party that seems to be able to consistently (and sometimes barely) get 5%.

    What I’d like to see (apart from MMP/STV described above):
    (1) A 3% or maybe even a 2% threshold. That way any party with reasonable support gets a place in parliament.
    (2) Get rid of the exception to the threshold of you get an electorate seat.

    Getting back to the Maori seats, if we had a low enough threshold that we could ensure that there are lots of voices in parliament, we wouldn’t need special seats any more – the Maori partly could take its place as a list party without causing an overhang. The danger is that if we got rid of the Maori seats then went back to FPP, the Maori would be back to no voice of their own in parliament.

    Having said all this, the current system is still way better than what we had before, or what the US has. Any real improvements are just refinements.

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  14. “When I mentioned this to a guy from Germany, he replied that it is illogical, because the NAZIs were a loony radical fringe party, and they got way more than 5% of the vote. I think the argument for introducing the threshold in germany after the war was that the high vote for Nazism was due to people wanting strong government, because they were fed up with the instability of the German political system created by having no threshold in the 1920s. I don’t know if any of that reasoning really makes sense, but it seems you can always win an argument by suggesting that what you are arguing against is somehow connected with Hitler.”

    The Nazis only got more than 5% of the vote from the 1930 elections onward. The fact that they were guaranteed representation no matter what probably encouraged people to vote for them instead of moderates in the 1920s, and since they had Reichstag representation, they had a greater vehicle to get their views heard.

    What I am essentially saying is that without Reichstag representation, the Nazis probably would have withered away, and never come to being.

    “By adopting an “overhang doesn’t count towards proportionate percentage, we create a situation of last past the post can win! Not the intent of proportionate representation I am sure.

    NOTE Tactical voting could see the Maori Party with 7 seats and 0% of the Party Vote – a really interesting challenge to an unwritten constitution!”

    Strings, in the mid 1990s, some people suggested that National create two parties; one to contest electorates and not campaign for the party vote, and the other one to campaign for the party vote. Of course, we would then have ended up with a benevolent dictatorship.

    I do believe though that the overhang situation is more fair than your proposed situation. If we didn’t let an overhang exist, then in the last Parliament, National would have been under-represented by one seat (they got the last seat in the House).

    “Getting back to the Maori seats, if we had a low enough threshold that we could ensure that there are lots of voices in parliament, we wouldn’t need special seats any more – the Maori partly could take its place as a list party without causing an overhang. The danger is that if we got rid of the Maori seats then went back to FPP, the Maori would be back to no voice of their own in parliament.”

    The major objection I have with the Maori seats is that it results in areas being represented by people who may not accurately represent the population. For instance, Northland has been a safe National seat since 1946; yet based on the nature of the population, it should be a safe Labour seat. Similarly with the East Coast.

    A further objection I have is that Maori is not adequately defined in New Zealand. How fair is it that someone who is 1/64th Maori (and maybe 63/64ths European) gets the ability to vote in their own racially based electorates. Having separate electorates may have been justifiable back in the 19th and 20th Centuries, however, Maori and European have mixed so much that being Maori is more a cultural construct these days than being a genetic reality.

    “At least partly because of our legacy of FPP, the two major parties get 80+% of the vote, and much of that vote is simply unavailable to the smaller parties, whether it’s people wanting to vote for a winner (i.e. major coalition partner), or whether people vote National/Labour because they always have). Say that at least 2/3rd of the vote is locked to major parties (I suspect it is more than that), that raises the threshold for minor parties to effectively 15% or more, and it’s very hard to get and maintain that – the Greens are the only minor party that seems to be able to consistently (and sometimes barely) get 5%.”

    Even in Germany, you have a high amount of vote going to the two major parties (for the purpose of this exercise, I will treat the CSU & CDU as one party). To give you an idea, this is the amount of vote that the two major parties in Germany has obtained in elections since 1980

    2005 – 69.4%
    2002 – 77%
    1998 – 76.1%
    1994 – 77.9%
    1990 – 77.3%
    1987 – 81.2%
    1983 – 86.9%
    1980 – 87.4%

    So even in a nation with nearly a hundred years of proportional representation, you still have a tendency for the two major parties to get a high proportion of the vote.

    I would argue that it is mostly because people are centrist; you may be centre-right, or centre-left, but you are generally centrist. You are unlikely to support a fringe party, unless you are in the small group that supports fringe parties.

    I have no issues with the status quo; I think it is doing its job brilliantly, and we will eventually get to the stage where Parliament consolidates to about five or six parties. I would say they are likely to be

    Greens (extreme-left)
    Labour (left)
    (centrist party – perhaps Winston First & Dunne’s Future merged)
    National (right)
    ACT (extreme-right)
    Maori

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  15. @john-ston:

    Interesting, I’ve just done the numbers for New Zealand (they were lower than I thought):

    2008 80-85% (according to current polls)
    2005 80.20%
    2002 62.19%
    1999 69.24%
    1996 62.03%

    It’s a little hard to compare these with Germany (they are trending down, we are possibly trending up), but it looks like the legacy of FPP is not as strong as I thought. I think the rest of my argument holds though.

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  16. Roy, I would suggest that the German tendency to decrease could be due to the impact of voters from the old GDR. You have had the rise of a quasi-Communist party there, and they get a good portion of the minor party vote; indeed, the three main minor parties (FDP, Greens & Left Party) in Germany got around the 7 to 8 per cent mark in the 2005 election

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